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Big voice, inspiring play 

The Big Voice: God Or Merman?,by Steve Schalchlin and Jim Brochu, is completely original and utterly rewarding. A musical about two totally opposite, deeply religious, gay men falling in love, surviving AIDS, and finding success in showbiz could be camp or cliché. But we are truly indebted to Downstairs Cabaret Theatre for producing the East Coast premiere of this hilarious, gut-wrenching, startlingly honest show.

            With its creators acting and singing together onstage, The Big Voice presents their story through writer Brochu's witty script and composer/lyricist Schalchlin's winsome songs.

            Brochu affectionately ribs his Catholic childhood, explaining his dream to be the first Pope from Brooklyn. He bought a record of Gregorian chants by his favorite recording artist, Pope Pius XII, but wasn't inspired. His epiphany came when a randomly chosen record of Annie Get Your Gun blasted out Ethel Merman singing "There's No Business Like Show Business." God, apparently, was in the vibrato.

            Schalchlin looked for the voice of God in the passionate evangelism of James Robertson at an Arkansas revival meeting. But his inspiration came through his own voice in Baptist church choirs. He trained in a seminary for a ministry of preaching through music. Sweet and innocently religious, he nonetheless felt great conflict, as we hear in his song, "In The Closet."

            That song shifts to the more worldly Brochu, whose father's remedy was to send him to an all-boys military school. He says that word got out about his unscientific experiment with another boy in the chemistry lab, and "Within an hour I was more sought after than uranium!"

            Their stories continue in that L'il Abner vs. Noel Coward vein. Brochu became an established theater artist, Schalchlin a singer/composer. When they met on a cruise ship that neither had planned to be on, it seemed like fate. But sophisticated Brochu was a "Merman Queen," and feared that naive, younger Schalchlin might be a "Judy Queen," for whom "Judaism had nothing to do with Jews." Blessedly, Schalchlin had to ask "Judy who?" and didn't explain that he thought "Ethel" referred to Ethel Mertz.

            Comic, romantic, and musical highs follow, but come crashing down with AIDS. Schalchlin was close to death when he was saved again by his art. Revived by a surge of songwriting, he expressed his fears, anguish, and creative salvation in music that Brochu wrote a script around. It was their first work together. Because Schalchlin was still too ill, the partners didn't appear in "The Last Session," but Brochu directed it. It was a great success in New York and Los Angeles, then elsewhere. Perhaps you saw it when Downstairs Cabaret Theatre revived it last year.

            The dark side came again in the form of personality-disorders that were a side-effect of the anti-AIDS cocktails that contain and arrest that plague. But conquering that tribulation, too, they have reunited and written this newer autobiographical revue. Schalchlin is in fine shape performing it with his urbane partner. And the audience's pleasure in this happy ending is palpable at the rousing finale.

            Anthony Barnao directs impeccably. Designs aren't credited, but you'll love Brochu's pajamas.

            You needn't be familiar with any gay, showbiz, or religious background. Example: To react when Brochu complains that, when they briefly separated, he was in a cramped apartment and "Down In The Dumps On The 9th Floor," you don't have to know that the song "Down In The Dumps On The 90th Floor" was the gay anthem for Broadway in the '70s. The meaning, the feeling, and the wit are obvious. I can't overemphasize what value you'll miss if you don't see this show.

The Big Voice: God Or Merman?,by Steve Schalchlin and Jim Brochu, plays at Downstairs Cabaret Theatre, 172 West Main Street, through Sunday, February 23. Performances are Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 5 p.m. and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 3 p.m. Tix: $21-$24. 325-4370,

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